Book Review: How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

(c) Princeton University Press. Source

Early on in How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro warns the reader against making emotional decisions over whether extinct species should be brought back to life. Informed decisions, she cautions, are key when considering de-extinction. I’ve never understood why these two things should be mutually exclusive and I suspect that deep down Shapiro doesn’t either, because How to Clone a Mammoth is a very personal manifesto for de-extinction where her (informed) emotions are apparent, and therein lies its power.

For example, Beth Shapiro doesn’t care that the genetically modified facsimile of a passenger pigeon that her lab is trying to create is not, and never will be, the real thing. She does care, however, how genetically engineered elephants might transform the Siberian tundra, were they allowed to graze and trample and – importantly – defecate there. George Church, powerhouse of genomics research, we learn, is one of her favourite scientists. Shapiro’s thoughts and feelings are ever-present in this breezy introduction to de-extinction science, and the reader is welcomed in on first name terms with Stewart (Brand), George (Church), and Sergey (Zimov) and the scions of the de-extinction effort. She hovers on just the right side of an undergraduate introductory lecture: never exhilarating, but always warm and accessible. Shapiro’s informal approach, peppered with dead-pan asides, is a welcome change from the hyperbole and grandstanding that has come to characterize popular debates on rewilding and de-extinction, and mammoth cloning in particular.

Shapiro has a few bones to pick with the media about that, and their mammoth cloning obsession in particular. Her world-weary eye rolls and sarcastic asides, are the standard – almost expected – response among us scientists suffering from ‘mammoth cloning fatigue’. But it’s important to remember that mammoth cloning is newsworthy, in a way that the minutiae of many other de-extinction projects are not, because it fires the imagination. The thought of bringing back a magnificent creature from distant times, that for many straddles the line between real and imaginary, that filled the stories and picture books of our childhoods, and that we thought was lost to us forever, moves people. Even those who aren’t particularly interested in science will talk about mammoth cloning down the pub. My hairdresser, who told me she never watches documentaries, turned over from the X-Factor to watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy because of the tantalizing promise of mammoth cloning. I’ve even had to answer questions about mammoth cloning during a pelvic exam. That was… awkward.

In all of my discussions with people who aren’t already engaged with the idea of de-extinction, when I tell them that we’ll never actually bring back the woolly mammoth, and that instead they’ll get an Asian elephant which has been genetically modified to have some mammoth features — like a thick woolly coat, and red blood cells that are better able to take up oxygen at cold temperatures – they are invariably disappointed, and whole lot less interested. Authenticity, restoration and turning back the clock are hugely important to people. Beth Shapiro might not care that a GMO band-tailed pigeon is not actually a passenger pigeon, or that a GMO Asian elephant is not a woolly mammoth, but others do.

De-extinction and rewilding proponents surely understand this, even while distancing themselves from the idea. It runs through the very language they have chosen to use. Revive, restore, rewild: all invoke a return to something that once was, rather than the creation of something new and synthetic. De-extinct and un-extinct are both explicitly about undoing extinction, rather than the novelty of creation. Words have power, and it’s more than just semantics when you call yourself a ‘mammoth revivalist’ as George Church’s lab do, or decide to use ‘mammoth’ or ‘passenger pigeon’ as short-hand for ‘genetically modified version of their nearest living relative’ as Shapiro does. It’s more than convenience, it’s a PR masterstroke.

Invoking this emotional tug on the one hand, while dismissing its value on the other, risks muddling the message and is also complicit in every eyeroll-inducing mammoth cloning headline that follows.

I also think the emotions inherent in this language motivates de-extinction scientists more than they are prepared to admit. I don’t think focusing research efforts on the ‘mammoth’ or the ‘passenger pigeon’ is an purely pragmatic, informed decision reflecting the best, most useful candidates for de-extinction: Sergey Zimov, Shapiro tells us, would prefer woolly rhinos. Justifications for mammoth de-extinction have shifted over the years from righting a wrong (human caused extinction), to restoring a lost ecosystem, to restoring this ecosystem to mitigate climate change, to – most recently – the best way to preserve elephant genetic diversity for posterity. All of which may be true, though this last justification is really a last-ditch, better-than-nothing idea and ignores the ecosystem-driven argument for de-extinction made so clearly by Shapiro. Is salvaging the gene pool of the Asian elephant while its habitat is lost a worthwhile effort? Additionally, and maybe ultimately, ‘mammoths’ are being worked on because mammoths are magnificent and many of us, de-extinction scientists included, pine for them.

The idea of generating new types of animals, and new types of ecosystems, from new technologies is exhilarating. Most of my objections to mammoth cloning efforts are related to animal welfare: experimentation on elephant surrogate mothers, and the manifold problems elephants suffer in captivity. Some of the most mind-blowing bits of How to Clone a Mammoth were the fleeting references to transplanting elephant ovarian tissue into mice to produce elephant eggs, and the possibility of artificial wombs. I wanted so much more on this, and the synthetic biology technologies that Shapiro and colleagues are using to drive the field forward. Shapiro’s optimism that these technologies will sweep aside so many of the obstacles to ethical de-extinction is infectious, and she made me – a sceptic – want to believe that a cold-tolerant, woolly elephant is both inevitable and the right thing to do. But the science lacked the depth needed to convince me. A herd of GMO elephants wont be trampling the tundra any time soon, unless a research team (it wont be Shapiro’s. She cares about elephant welfare) ignores their ethical responsibilities regarding animal experimentation. That’s why we have to be aware of the motivations — emotional and informed — that drive interest in reviving the woolly mammoth, and how our choice of language helps to sustain flawed cloning programs alongside media coverage. It’s time for a bigger, public conversation. The open-hearted simplicity of How to Clone a Mammoth makes a great entry point for people who want to join in.

Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth is published by Princeton University Press

This is an unexpurgated version of a piece that first appeared in the Literary Review. Can you guess what bit they cut? #overshare

You can read some of my opinions on the ethics of mammoth cloning and GMO arctic elephants here; and a follow-up post here

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